Dietrich von Hildebrand: Ethics

Ethics Book Cover Ethics
Dietrich von Hildebrand. Introductory study by John F. Crosby
Hildebrand Press
Paperback $26.99

Reviewed by: Steven Nemes (Grand Canyon University)

Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Ethics is a rigorously argued treatment of many important problems in the philosophy of morals. He puts forth a coherent and insightful realist perspective which strives to be founded in lived moral experience. And this realist aspect is in fact most important to him. As will become evident, in every way he tries to emphasize and secure the utter objectivity and autonomy of the sphere of values from all possible reductions to something else. But his treatment lacks a certain critical awareness of the transcendental-hermeneutical structure of experience. Hildebrand seems to consider that because the experience of value has an intentional character, it is therefore a direct and immediate “contact” with an objective reality that gives itself as it is. Intentionality is taken as securing realism straightaway. This is how he tries to offer a phenomenological argument from the intentionality of consciousness against various forms of value-relativism. Hildebrand wishes to understand the human being as by nature open to an ontologically independent sphere of value. But the counterargument to be given below is that the experience of the world is both of the world (intentional) and inevitably mediated (transcendental-hermeneutical). What one experiences is not simply an “in itself” but rather an “in itself for us.” This lack of transcendental awareness fatally undermines his attempt to demonstrate the pure objectivity of values. The only possible solution to this problem would be that of adopting an “anthropocentric ontology” in which the meaning of everything is its possible meaning for human beings. The “in itself” would thus correspond totally with the “in itself for us,” and the hermeneutical structure of human experience would be revelatory of things as they are. But this would be contrary to the purposes of Hildebrand, who wishes to situate human beings within the greater context of a non-anthropocentric reality. The goal in the following review is to summarize the substance of Hildebrand’s work and to pursue this line of critique in greater detail.

In the chapter titled “Prolegomena,” Hildebrand announces the method he is to adopt in the present work in addition to making certain requests of the reader. Although he does not use these terms, one could say that Hildebrand’s method attempts to be simultaneously phenomenological and realist. It attempts to be phenomenological because he desires that we be “on our guard against all constructions and explanations that are incompatible with the nature of moral data as presented in experience or that in any way fail to do full justice to them” (2). He wishes to engage in an inquiry into the moral by way of starting from “‘the immediately given,’ that is, from the data of experience” (2). And he calls upon his readers to perform along with him a kind of epoché, in which one “hold[s] in abeyance for a while all theories that are familiar to him, and that provide him with a set of terms that he is accustomed to use in sizing up that which is immediately given” (2). The reader is called to “listen to the voice of being” (3) and to pay close attention, in as unbiased and unprejudiced manner as possible, to the real given of experience. But what is this “given” of experience, and how does one arrive at it? Hildebrand is emphatic that his intended sense of the “given” is not a reference to what is experienced naïvely in everyday life, nor does it reduce to what “everyone knows,” i.e. what is taken as a matter of course in some community. Rather, the given is “the object that imposes itself on our intellect, that reveals and validates itself fully when we focus on it in an intellectual intuition” (10). The “given” in this sense would therefore seem to amount to a genuine “in itself” that has become transparent and visible to the inquiring intellect. And Hildebrand also proposes a method for attaining to it. More precisely, he proposes that one return to naïve prephilosophical experience and purify it of the distortions and malformations imposed upon it unthinkingly and perhaps “inauthentically” by conforming it to the reigning doxa of the thought-world a person happens to inhabit. This means not only refusing to deny the reality of something given in experience simply because it cannot be reduced to the categories dominating the time and place in which the experience happens, as when a modern person takes great offense at a crime but then goes on later to say that morals are a matter of subjective preference, but also rejecting the pragmatic obsession with usefulness which blinds a person to any other aspect of a thing than that which is useful. This is the substance of Hildebrand’s suggestion for what amounts to a preparation of oneself so as to attain to knowledge of a given, i.e. of a true “in itself” which has become transparent to the inquiring intellect. The method is thus phenomenological insofar as it turns to experience as the source of knowledge rather than to speculation or theorizing or hypothesizing, and it is realist insofar as Hildebrand emphasizes that knowledge is essentially a passive reception of the self-disclosure of an external “in itself.” Finally, Hildebrand cautions against the temptation to premature systematizing for a variety of reasons, the most fundamental of which seems to be that excessive zeal for the development of a system inevitably translates into an aprioristic method which can only ever disconfirmed by experience. As he says, “as soon as we believe that from certain general principles we can deduce the rest of the universe, we are bound to build up a system that is not in conformity with reality” (13). One must always prefer the truly given to the desire for a system, always prefer honesty and faithfulness to the given rather than faithfulness to a system (16-19). One could therefore summarize these points by noting that Hildebrand’s method strives to be phenomenological, realist, and non-systematizing out of a concern to be properly “empirical” or experientially founded.

Hildebrand’s ethics begins with the notion of “importance” (ch. 1). A thing presents itself as important, rather than as neutral or indifferent, when it gives itself as possessing the power to motivate a specific response on the part of the person to whom it shows itself. Its motivating power may be either positive – as when it motivates desire, or joy, or enthusiasm, etc. – or negative – as when it motivates aversion or some other such response. The positively important is designated “good” (bonum), whereas the negatively important is designated “bad” (malum).

The motivational power of things can be different from case to case (ch. 2). Some things are good in the sense that they are desirable. But desire is not the only way in which a person can relate to the good. Some good things are desired for the sake of being possessed, whereas others are good as sources of joy and to be desired even when they cannot be personally appropriated (e.g., the conversion of a sinner). And some good things are desired insofar as the formal object of the desire is its coming into existence, whereas other good things are venerated and esteemed as already existing.

Hildebrand distinguishes between three different categories of importance (ch. 3). First, there is the distinction between value and the subjectively satisfying. Value is importance-in-itself. The value imposes itself in experience as being good independently of the way in which it happens to affect a person, e.g. an act of moral heroism. The morally heroic act imposes itself as something whose positive importance is independent of the effect it happens to have upon those who are witness to it. On the other hand, the subjectively satisfying is only important because of the way it happens to affect a person in some circumstances, e.g. a warm bath or an enjoyable party. But in addition to value and the subjectively satisfying, there is also that which is objectively good for a person. This category is presupposed by the Socratic maxim that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it, which would be unintelligible if the only way for a thing to be good for a person would be for it to be subjectively satisfying. It is better to suffer the subjectively unsatisfying than to commit an injustice, and this is because to be just is objectively good for a person, to be unjust – objectively bad. Hildebrand also emphasizes that the sphere of value is incommensurate with the sphere of the subjectively satisfying. It is not merely that one happens to be more valuable than another. A person forced to choose between caring for a friend in grave moral need and attending a social gathering is not choosing between two values on the same scale, but rather between two incommensurate forms of importance which appeal to different aspects of a person in order to move her to action. Value, mere subjective satisfaction, and the objective good for the person thus suggest themselves as the three fundamental categories of importance. And Hildebrand notes against Aristotle (63) that human freedom extends not merely to the means one chooses for the pursuit of any of these categories of importance, but also to which category of importance for which one opts in the course of life.

Although the useful is a genuine ethical category, it does not represent a category of importance on its own (ch. 4). A thing can be useful or not only relative to some important thing, whether this be value or mere subjective satisfaction or the objective good for the person. And Hildebrand is emphatic that of the three categories of importance, value — the important-in-itself — is primary (ch. 5). In fact, the primacy of value is so evidently a part of a meaningful human life that it often goes unnoticed and even obscured by theories which measure everything by the standard of the merely subjectively satisfying.

The values of things are properties which belong to beings independently of our motivations (ch. 7). These values reveal themselves in contemplation if a person is appropriately disposed, e.g. not beset by concupiscence and vice. The notion of an objective good for the person presupposes value, whether it be the value of the being the possession of which is an objective good or else the value of the human person whose enjoyment of various agreeable things is itself a value. Moreover, value is irreducible to the satisfiability of some relation to an urge or impulse of the human person (ch. 8). On the one hand, value imposes itself in experience independently of the disposition of those witnessing it, as when even a selfish person can be moved by a display of generosity. On the other hand, attempts at reducing value to a relation to some human disposition (e.g., an impulse toward admiration) all implicitly presuppose the value of the fulfillment of that disposition. These considerations lead to a refutation of relativism (ch. 9). Hildebrand responds to the argument from the diversity of moral opinions that such a diversity does not entail that there is no truth of the matter in morality and that the reality of an objective truth is in any case presupposed by the very act of taking up a moral opinion. In response to the claim of the “French sociological school” that morality is an invention and illusion owing to social pressures and cultural tradition, he responds that the moral sphere is in fact characterized by a certain essential intelligibility and necessity which puts it closer to mathematics than to mythology. Furthermore, these same relativists nevertheless inconsistently take up moral stances in response to evils such as Nazism. And Hildebrand has no patience for the view that says that the alleged value of things is in fact a feeling produced in us by the object, rather than a property of being itself, because this is contrary to the intentional nature of the experience of value itself. This is a point to which it will be important to return later.

There is a distinction to be made between ontological and qualitative value (ch. 10). Qualitative value is the value that characterizes qualities which may be possessed by different persons and is as such indifferent to each of them, e.g. the value of humility or charm or whatever. Ontological value is the value that a thing possesses simply in virtue of the fact that it is what it is, e.g. the value and intrinsic dignity of the human being as such. Hildebrand notes that the qualitative values (and disvalues) are related to each other in a way characterized by what he calls “polarity” (ch. 11). For example, thing cannot simultaneously be grand and delicate, menacing and boring, charming and imposing. Hildebrand also distinguishes various forms of polarity, some of which involve a kind of fruitful antagonism or opposition while others involve complementarity. And with respect to the relation between value and being (ch. 12), Hildebrand argues that these are distinct notions such that the grasp of one does not entail the grasp of the other. He grants that there is a formal value which belongs to every being simply qua being, but this must be distinguished from the ontological value of that being qua something as well as its qualitative values, i.e. the various valuable qualities it might possess. And it is possible for a thing to possess such ontological and qualitative disvalue that it would be better if it did not exist at all.

Speaking more generally of the connection between being and value, it is evident that the world in which human beings live is full of both good and evil, value and disvalue (ch. 13). But the presence of value alongside disvalue and indifference itself suggests that at the foundation of created being lies God who is Absolute Value. The ultimate reality could not be disvalue insofar as this would empty value of its meaning and turn it into a lie. This shows something of the relationship between God and value (ch. 14). Hildebrand compares it to the relationship between God as necessary and the creature as contingent: although it is possible to grasp a thing as contingent or valuable apart from the recognition of God, nevertheless the contingent or valuable thing depends upon God as its precondition. And the various values of things are in different ways reflections of the supreme unity of value in God.

Leaving aside questions of the relation between value and being, Hildebrand turns to the matter of moral values in particular (ch. 15). These are first and foremost values of a person, whereas nothing impersonal could be said to possess a moral value such as wisdom or temperance or the rest. And yet they are distinguished from other qualitative values of persons by the fact that it is demanded of every person as such to possess them, thus presupposing freedom of the will and in which regard the success or failure to possess them leaves one deserving either of reward or punishment. The distinctly Christian values of the saint include but also go beyond the values of “natural” morality available to all people whatsoever. With respect to the matter of moral value and its relation to nature (ch. 16), Hildebrand is firmly committed to the notion that the sphere of value cannot be subordinated to that of the human, as if value were merely a human phenomenon. This means that the morally valuable is not simply whatever is in accordance with human nature. Rather, human being is itself ordered toward the autonomous sphere of value, including the distinct sphere of moral value to which the human being has access as a result of its capacity for reason.

Hildebrand puts forth an extended discussion of the nature of value-response which is so fundamental to ethics (ch. 17). He begins by distinguishing intentional acts of consciousness, which imply a relation between a person and an object, from those nonintentional states such as exhaustion or cheerfulness. Among intentional acts, a distinction is to be made between the cognitive acts such as perception, through which an object is made present to a person, the direction of intentionality being principally from object to subject, and responses from the subject to the object which presuppose these prior cognitive acts. Responses may be of different sorts. Theoretical responses have to do with believing or disbelieving, accepting or doubting, and are aimed at the state of affairs as such. Volitional responses have to do with willing or not willing, which are principally aimed at state of affairs recognized not presently to be real, but which at least are possibly so. And there are also affective responses such as joy or sorrow, love or contempt. Some of these are principally characterized by the cognition of a value in their object, such as the admiration one feels for a saint or virtuous person. These are called value-responses. They are distinguished from other affective responses principally through the fact that they express themselves through a form of self-abandonment and self-transcendence, as when one worships God or commits oneself to the cause of justice. Some value responses such as love may manifest themselves in a manner similar to urges and impulses like thirst or strong desire, but they must nevertheless be distinguished from these in virtue of the fact that they are responses to an independently possessed value of some object. And the intentionality and object-directedness of the value response is not compromised by the thought that the human being is naturally disposed toward or benefited by certain values. The value of a thing is grasped in a special form of intentional cognition which Hildebrand calls value-perception. Hildebrand notably differs with Socrates in that he does not believe that mere indubitable value perception is sufficient to result in moral action; it is also necessary to be affected by them and to will in conformity with them.

It is essential to respond and relate appropriately to the values in things (ch. 18). There is an evident disharmony in dismissing Plato as vapid or thinking of St. Francis as “merely a lovely religious troubadour” (257). Similar considerations apply in the case of a person who responds with admiration and veneration to her robbers. And it is not merely a person or a valuable thing but rather the value itself that demands a proportionate response. Among these value-responses is the will to be good (ch. 19). One might also call this the fundamental option for moral value. Hildebrand is clear that the choice to be moral is first and foremost a response to the importance-in-itself of moral value and only secondarily a pursuit of what is objectively good for the human person. The difference between morally conscious person and morally unconscious person is that the former has considered and made this fundamental option for goodness whereas the latter has not. The morally unconscious person conforms to the moral order only accidentally, to the extent that it is natural or normal for her to do so. The morally unconscious person may also be strictly indifferent to the question of moral value while finding herself contingently inclined toward certain values which are genuinely morally good. The appropriate response to moral value in general requires moral consciousness.

Hildebrand also considers the role of the will in the response to value (ch. 21). On the one hand, the freedom of the will makes it possible for the human being to respond to the disclosure of value either positively or negatively, appropriately or inappropriately. On the other hand, the will is also what makes it possible for human beings to initiate causal sequences and to intervene in the flow of events in the world. Freedom implies the consciousness that some state of affairs both should and will obtain as a result (at least in part) of one’s own agency. Moreover, freedom is the presupposition of all moral evaluation and social action. It is distinct from the forms of voluntariness which are found even among animals (ch. 22). Contrary to the assertion of Aristotle, human freedom extends not only to the means but also to the end (ch. 23). Humans are free to choose between the merely subjectively satisfying or the important-in-itself as ends for their actions and not merely as means for the procurement of happiness. Insofar as human responsibility is coextensive with human freedom, it must be recognized that there is a distinction between things for which humans are directly responsible and those for which humans are only indirectly responsible (ch. 24). The existence of the former can be assured by an act of the will, whereas for the existence of the latter all one can do is prepare the way by means of free choices. One may not be capable of bringing about a virtue in oneself directly, but one can nevertheless be blamed for a failure of virtue if one does not at least prepare the way by willing to do the virtuous thing.

Human freedom also plays a role in the response to one’s being affected or affective responses to other things (ch. 25). It is not a matter of human freedom that one be affected or respond affectively to things, nor would it be right for it to be so, since the affective response is precisely a response to quality perceived in the object and not a matter of choice. But it is nevertheless a matter of freedom whether one “cooperates” with how one has been affected by something, e.g. whether one pursues a joy or submits to a felt offense. The morally conscious person is distinguished by the fact that she exercises her capacity to sanction or disavow her spontaneous attitudes. The morally unconscious person simply takes these affective responses for granted, whatever they might be. But this capacity can also be exercised by the morally conscious immoralist or enemy of God who specifically identifies with immoral attitudes and suppresses any noble affections that may arise within her. In general, the zone of affective responses is an area in which the human being can exercise indirect influence by either sanctioning or disavowing certain responses for the sake of preparing a ground for the advent of the appropriate ones. And in general, the factors which influence the development of a person’s character are numerous and vary with respect to the freedom a person has over them (ch. 26). One’s natural endowment with respect to temperament and body is one thing, whereas the way in which a person internalizes her own experiences and understands her own life is another. These analyses therefore yield the fundamental elements composing a moral act: it must be a free value-response to some relevant moral value perceived and pursued precisely as such, i.e. as a moral value (361).

Hildebrand posits three spheres of morality: the sphere of action; the sphere of concrete responses to things, whether volitional or affective; and the sphere of the lasting qualities of a person’s character (ch. 27). These spheres are not reducible or subordinated to each other. For example, it is possible for a morally noble person to fall into some sin as a result of temptation, in which case a distinction is to be made from the evaluation of character (she is noble), the evaluation of concrete responses (she is tempted by something), and the evaluation of action (she performs an evil action). An action is the intentional realization of a state of affairs perceived both as realizable and as valuable in a certain way. Affective responses to things can become the subject of moral evaluation when they are sanctioned or disavowed, i.e. when volition is brought into the equation. Virtues are deeply embedded qualities of a person’s character which are founded upon certain basic value-responses. This raises the question of moral “rigorism” (ch. 28). Although for Hildebrand the true drama of morality is the choice between the merely subjectively satisfying and the important-in-itself, it is nevertheless true that one should prefer the more valuable to the less. But it is also possible that in various situations it be morally required to give preference to something which otherwise would be considered a lesser value. And a distinction must be posited between what is morally praiseworthy and what is morally obligatory. “Rigorism” collapses this distinction and in this way erases the category of the merely permissible. Hildebrand also considers the question of the objective good for the person (ch. 29). There are four categories of the objective good: to be endowed with values; to possess something that makes happy because it is valuable; to have things which are indispensable for life; and to enjoy things which are legitimately agreeable.

The final chapters address the sources of moral evil. These are identified as pride and concupiscence (ch. 30). In fact, Hildebrand identifies three moral “centers” in the human being (ch. 31). These “centers” are not ontological constituents of the human person, but rather “a kind of fundamental approach to the universe and to God, a qualitatively unified ‘ego’ that is always more or less actualized when the person accomplishes a morally good act” (437). These centers are identified on the basis of certain qualitative affinities between various virtues and vices. The virtues — love, humility, reverence, justice, generosity, and so on — are united around what Hildebrand calls the “loving, reverent, value-responding center,” whereas there are two centers of evil: pride, which is the source of vices such as revengefulness, hard-heartedness, envy; and concupiscence, which is the source of covetousness, impurity, laziness, and other such. Hildebrand proposes an analysis of five possible manifestations of the coexistence of the good and evil centers in the typical human being (ch. 32). The merely subjectively satisfying can be a legitimate pursuit, but only if it is done in a recognition of the precedence and priority of value (ch. 33). Otherwise, one falls victim to pride and concupiscence. The discussions terminate with analyses of concupiscence (ch. 34) and pride (ch. 35) as distinct yet related ways of failing in the matter of value-response, concupiscence consisting in a loss of self in the pursuit of the satisfying, pride consisting in a preoccupation with self to the negation of value.

The book terminates with reflections on distinctly Christian ethics (ch. 36). Christian morality includes but also goes beyond and fulfills “natural” morality, understood as that moral knowledge which is available apart from revelation. This Christian ethics is distinguished in at least a few ways: its principal manifestation is humility; it brings together values which in natural morality are often thought exclusive (e.g., zeal for justice and meekness); it is principally founded upon the core of charity; and it conceives of the ethical life as a response to God in Jesus Christ.

Hildebrand’s discussion spanning some nearly five hundred pages is coherent, detailed, and in many places compelling without being aprioristic or unduly systematizing. His analyses of the different ways in which virtues and vices, moral battles and weaknesses manifest themselves in distinct types of persons are very astute and insightful. He demonstrates a profound and nuanced vision of the details of the moral landscape, for example in appreciation of the irreducibility of value even to the sphere of human entelechy as in some species of natural law ethics. At the same time, his writing lacks a certain transcendental awareness of his own hermeneutical situatedness. Sometimes the result is quaint, as when he takes for granted the obviousness of certain moral intuitions and attitudes typical of a faithful Roman Catholic writing decades before the Second Vatican Council. On other occasions, however, it serves to undermine the cogency of his arguments and compromises the genuinely phenomenological character of his work. Consider his discussion of the intentional character of value-response and its phenomenal quality as a perception of a value in the object itself.

Hildebrand distinguishes between cognitive acts and responses as two forms of intentional consciousness. The cognitive act is fundamentally receptive insofar as it consists in the grasping of the self-presentation of an object given to consciousness. The response is fundamentally active in that it consists in the adoption of a particular attitude toward the object grasped in the cognitive act (206-207). Although Hildebrand does not formulate it in precisely these terms, one could say that the cognitive act is a form of categorial intuition in which one grasps a state of affairs of such a nature as to motivate the adoption of some attitude in response to the grasped object. The quality which the object is grasped to possess is the motivation for the response. Insofar as some responses clearly have to do with the supposed value or disvalue of a thing to which one is responding, it therefore would seem to follow that these responses presuppose the prior cognitive grasp of a thing as possessing some value or disvalue relevant for motivating the response in question. For example, one feels admiration for a person in whom one perceives admirable qualities, e.g. moral values. The value-response is thus founded upon a form of value-perception in the way that responses more generally are founded upon cognitive acts such as perception or categorial intuition.

By way of response, one should note that Hildebrand seems to disregard the essentially hermeneutical nature of world-experience. One does not simply experience world-objects and grasp their properties directly. The external world-object is grasped through the dual hermeneutical filter of the lived body and thought-life of the individual. A door looks blurry from a distance, not because it is blurry, but because one has bad eyesight. So also, a skyscraper may appear massive, not because it is in itself massive, but because it is much larger than one’s own body. Likewise, the fact that a man does not experience his wife and his sister-in-law in the same way does not owe to a difference in the two women, nor to a difference in his body, but to a difference in his thought-life: he understands the one to be his wife and not the other. So also, a woman might experience her parents differently after learning that she was adopted, not because something is different in them or in her body but because she now understands them differently. This is what is meant by the assertion that the external world-object is grasped through the dual hermeneutical filter of the lived body and the thought-life. One does not only experience the object but rather the object as related to oneself.

Hildebrand’s arguments for the objectivity of value therefore seem unsuccessful. It is true that one experiences an object as possessing some value which motivates a particular form of response to it. But it is another matter whether one has grasped a value in the object on its own or in the object as it is related to oneself in experience. Food is experienced as delicious, but there is no property of gustatory value inhering objectively in chicken tikka masala. It can be appetizing to one but not to another. Or consider that human beings love fruit, but dogs and cats generally do not. Similarly, a purported moral value can be “noble” in the eyes of the “virtuous” but repellent to the “profligate.” It could well be that the difference in perception is accounted for merely in terms of the different structures of the persons involved. Hildebrand thus does not succeed in demonstrating the pure objectivity of value because he does not show a critical awareness of the hermeneutical contribution of the lived body and thought-life to every world-experience. This seems to be the greatest shortcoming of an otherwise quite valuable treatment of the philosophy of morals. It remains a possibility that the perception of value is accounted for by the human body and thought-life rather than in the world-objects themselves. Value could be just like food, where tastes differ.

Hildebrand could escape this conclusion if he were to opt for an “anthropocentric ontology.” Such a perspective maintains that the meaning of things is their possible meaning for human life and purposes. On this view, the hermeneutical structure of human experience would not supply merely one more possible perspective among others but would rather constitute the total framework within which every possible perspective is included. The human being is not related to a prior world which could exist independently of him, but rather the being and meaning of the world its precisely its being and meaning for the human being. Reality is subordinated to the human rather than the other way around. Adopting this perspective would be a way of admitting the fundamentally anthropo-hermeneutical character of the experience of value without compromising the reality of values, since reality is precisely reality-for-humans. This also undermines the argument for relativism, which apparently presupposes a “realist” ontological stance within which human beings are merely one more kind of beings within a greater non-anthropocentric reality that is strictly indifferent to them. But it would also be incompatible with Hildebrand’s greater project of conceiving the human being as intrinsically open to a sphere of objective values which transcends him and exists independently of him. One must therefore choose between “anthropocentric ontology” or an uncertain realism and the specter of value-relativism.

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Martin Kusch (Ed.): The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism, Routledge, 2019

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